This article originally appeared in Issue 20 of n+1 and is reprinted
on Longform by permission of the author. Hear David Samuels
discuss this story on the n+1 Podcast.
Beneath the high darkened dome of the Staples Center in Los
Angeles stands Ken Ehrlich, who has directed the Grammys for
the past thirty years. Potbellied, balding, in a gray sweater vest,
he is part of the race of show-business elves who make things
work. "You can sit there if you don't say a fucking word," he
growls after my whispered plea. He nods toward the stage
where the bass players are finding a groove and the horn
players are hitting high notes, in preparation for the next hour
or so of rehearsals.
Ehrlich checks the action onstage against the minute-by-minute
script contained in a fat three-ring binder that lies open on the
long table in front of him. Strictly for kicks, someone has
outfitted the director's table to resemble an Italian red-sauce
joint, complete with red-and-white checkered plastic tablecloth,
cheese platter, loaf of rustic semolina bread, wicker-clad bottle
of Ruffino Chianti, and scattered tea lights atop the two ancient
nineteen-inch Sony monitors, which allow the director to see
the stage the way that the Grammys audience will see it from
"OK, guys. So we'll take it from the top," Ehrlich says,
surrounded by a mix of old guys, fat guys, and younger
women, one of whom kindly rescued me from Justin
Timberlake's bleary-eyed goons when they tried to throw me
out of the arena for using my iPhone to photograph the setup.
JT is a stone perfectionist, and so it is odd that he is not yet
onstage, more than ten minutes into his scheduled rehearsal
time. In his absence, a backup dancer hits the star's marks at
three-quarter speed so that the cameraman can track the
routine. All at once, the band falls silent mid-phrase, as if
someone pressed pause, opening a path for a lean sweatshirted
figure who looks like a software engineer or some other kind of
educated geek, with a navy wool mugger's cap, pulled down
low over his close-cropped hair.
The news that Justin Timberlake has a head cold on the eve of
the Grammys is as close to a scoop as I am likely to get, I am
thinking, as JT's goons give me their best wait-till-we-catch-
you-after-school glare. The band starts up again with a Brazilian
pop-funk groove. "Show ya how to do this, hah!" the star says,
feeling out the dynamics of the vocal in the high-roofed arena.
The drum pops. Pop! Pop! Pop! It's Vegas-casino-hotel-lobby
party-time music, with a wink. JT moves like a dancer onstage,
slowing down to create lacunae in the vocal, then speeding up
again to further emphasize his unique sense of time. The music
stops, and two stand-ins read from a cue card behind my head:
"A real Grammy moment to remember, featuring [some actor]."
Like Italian film stars of the 1960s, or English soccer players of
the '80s, rock stars are a quaintly dated category of celebrated
person. I sympathize with rock stars because of the sense of
isolation that is, or was, inherent in their antiquated mode of
stardom. Having grown up in a family setup that might be
generously described as bunker-like, I also find myself drawn
to people who were sick as children, or suffered from allergies,
or buried themselves in books, or moved around a lot, or grew
up in cults led by preachers and gurus, or on military bases and
other remote or highly regimented places, which are getting
ever harder to find thanks to Facebook and Twitter and
WhatsApp and the buzzing hive of seines and chats and tweets
and chatter and casual surveillance in which no man may speak
from a burning bush or a shimmering mist, or be uncamera-
ready, or cranky, or worse still, out of touch.
It also occurs to me that maybe the age of instant
communication that killed off the rock stars is all one big
misunderstanding. What the techies missed was that the person
Mick Jagger was just a contributor to the invented character of
Mick Jagger, rock star, who represented a collective investment
of x amount of imaginative capital and hard cash by record
companies, art directors, and fans. Mick Jagger, the person,
could hardly have created Mick Jagger, the rock star, alone in
his bedroom using Instagram and Pro Tools, let alone
programmed the contingent and chaotic human and creative
interactions with Keef and the late, great junkie producer
Jimmy Miller that went into the recording of Exile on Main St.
and Let It Bleed. Disdaining the wasteful, elitist space where
bands hankered after record-company expense accounts that
would pay for hookers and villas in the South of France, Silicon
Valley presented itself as the tribune of average-Joe air
guitarists who never got their shot at the American Dream. It
was easy to stoke resentment against the perks enjoyed by the
pros while spreading the easy gospel of democratic cultural
production. Every boy and girl could be Virginia Woolf and
Keith Richards and David Foster Wallace depending on what
day of the week it was, thanks to fun new digital software that
ushered in a freshly branded universe of frictionless self-
gratification in which all movies and books and music would be
free, because they should be free, because they were made to
be free, because paying for stuff is an unconscionable rip-off in
a world where stuff was meant to be free, and who else does art
belong to if not to the people, right? And so, the tech moguls
could pose as liberators and revolutionaries who would cut out
the middlemen while sucking up the market cap of the music
business, the newspaper business, and other sadly benighted
The paradoxical result of these acts of creative destruction has
been the elevation of a handful of recording artists like
Beyonce, Kanye West, Katy Perry, and Justin Bieber to
previously unseen levels of wealth and fame, in the same
moment that the product on which their fame is, or was,
based— namely, music— has been rendered worthless. With a
flick of the wrist that any old-school three-card-monte dealer
would admire, the value that once inhered in the creative
product was moved to the bottom line of Silicon Valley
companies with smiley interfaces.
Those old-fashioned types who still haven't heard of WhatsApp
or Grindr are left with the Grammys, whose folksy-sounding
title conveys an accurate impression of the age bracket at
which the made-for-television event is pitched. Broadcast in
early February, the Grammys are the music businesses half-
assed version of the Oscars, an industry-sponsored shindig
whose aim is to encourage an ever-shrinking fan base to keep
buying CDs, downloads, or whatever music-related product
people might spend their pennies on. My favorite thing about
the Grammys is the odd time warp that the broadcasts still
somehow manage to generate; they are like transmissions from
a distant planet on which rock stars still dance and sing like
My specific excuse for visiting Los Angeles for the Grammys
was a special-delivery envelope that had arrived at my doorstep
in Brooklyn two months earlier, while I was playing with my
daughter on the rug and watching the ferry boats ply the open
harbor between Lower Manhattan and Staten Island. Inside a
black box, encircled by a detachable gold band that promised
QUITE SIMPLY, THE MOST FABULOUS PARTY OF THE
YEAR!, was an invitation to attend Clive Davis's annual party at
the Beverly Hilton the night before the Grammys, on Saturday,
February 9, with cocktails at 7pm followed by dinner at 8. "Yes,
the entertainment will be off the hook/' it promised, on behalf
of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and
Clive Davis, the party's true host, the Caligula of his ego-driven
business, and by all accounts a man who knows how to give a
The collapse of the so-called creative industries has happened
with such blinding speed that people outside New York are not
entirely aware that glossy magazines are dead. This, as far as I
can figure out, is why I was invited to the most fabulous party
of the year. Clive Davis's sense of hospitality was also
evidenced by the invitation he sent to Cissy Houston, the
gospel legend and mother of Whitney Houston, who died in a
bathtub on the fourth floor of the Beverly Hilton in 2012,
directly above the ballroom where Davis's party continued on
without her. "I got an invitation to the party, which is the most
obscene thing," Cissy Houston told a reporter— "I don't know
why they would want me to come to the party in which she
died, you know?"
Davis's invitation to Houston was clearly not intended as an
insult— it is simply what happens when you combine the
rampant egomania required to float a five-decade hit-making
career with the native human discomfort with tragedy. What
Clive Davis loves isn't music but stars, who are not necessarily
musicians, but rather highly specialized forms of human. Stars
love Davis because he is a sharp Harvard lawyer with the heart
of a piano-bar diva. His monthly singles meetings back in the
day when he ran Columbia Records, from 1967 to 1973, when
it was Bob Dylan's label, and Janis Joplin's label, and a lot of
other people's label— back when labels told consumers what to
buy— were held in a long, narrow, windowless bunker with a
control room at one end and huge speakers the size of double-
door refrigerators at the other. Davis sat at the head of a long
table, alone. He would formally cue each new record— "This Is
Earth, Wind & Fire"— which would be played at huge volume
from the speakers directly behind his head, and everyone in
the room would sit and watch him as he kept a stone face,
nodding almost imperceptibly to the beat. Or, if he didn't like
the record, after a few bars his mouth would turn down, as if
he had bitten into a bad oyster, and then everyone else's mouth
would turn down, too, meaning that it was dead on arrival.
Nobody at Columbia Records trusted anybody else, in part
because Clive Davis didn't trust himself, a driven boy from
Brooklyn who went to New York University and then to
Harvard law school, where he acquired tweed jackets and
cashmere turtlenecks. He was abruptly fired from Columbia,
ostensibly for using company money to pay for his son's bar
mitzvah, a fact that was uncovered after a failed federal
investigation into payola called "Project Sound." There was also
the fact that Davis's assistant David Wynshaw, the former
director of A&R for Columbia Records, apparently had a side
business operating companies in partnership with a Genovese
crime family associate named Patsy Falcone, who was involved
in importing heroin into New York. Davis's comeback as head
of Arista and then Sony, where he now runs his own label, J
Records, left him with perhaps an even greater need to prove
how indispensable his genius was, and is. "What am I looking
for?! I'm looking for hits! What kind of artists? I'm looking for
stars!" he would rant at producers who were young or foolish
enough to ask him for guidance. "That's all there is, hits!"
Davis is also famous among producers for the randomness of
the details on which he fixates. "He gets very involved in
everything, but that's where you go crazy, because the details
make no sense whatsoever," one producer who'd worked with
Davis told me, relating a story about a recording session
scheduled for Davis's annual yachting trip, which starts at
Monte Carlo and ends in Capri. The day after Davis left, the
producer was driving across the George Washington Bridge
when his phone rang. "Uh, the high hat in bar thirty-one is, uh,
it's not right, so we need to fix that," Davis began from his
offshore yacht. The drummer was also slowing down around
the bridge of the song, which in turn was throwing off the
hook, he explained to the producer. "And the thing is you
know, these are programmed drum-machine tracks," the
producer sighed when he told me the story. "It can't slow
down." One clever sound engineer learned to keep two
different mixes of every song, A and B: when Davis would call
insisting that something was wrong with A, the engineer would
send in B. When Davis would object to B, the engineer would
send A, and keep going back and forth between the two mixes,
until Davis got tired.
What also set Davis apart was his undeniable talent for hearing
hits— the spark in a song, which he called the Wow Factor.
"Where's the wow?! I don't hear the wow! We've got to get it
in there!" he would object, driving musicians and producers
crazy. Songs Davis didn't like were "clunky and funky," or other
self-coined terms of art that he drew from his famously addled
patois. "It's Borax!" Davis might object, leaving his men to
figure out what exactly that meant for the fate of a song. But the
best way to gauge Clive's reaction to a song was how long it
took for his finger to rise up from the surface of his highly
polished conference-room table, where he sat with his eyes
closed, to the stop button on his tape player, dive's Crooked
Finger of Doom! All of which only added to his reputation as
the recording industry's ultimate mack daddy.
Justin Timberlake, Disney boy genius, then of the boy band 'N
Sync, and now a grown-up man with a cold, is no longer
wearing his hat, and after two abortive run-throughs he has
found a passable approximation of his own voice. "Let me
show you a few things," he croons to the thirty black musicians
who have found day work backing a white kid with some real
talent to go with his millions of teenybopper fans. What JT will
show them is that stardom is hard, too. His manager, Johnny
Wright, a middle-aged black man in a checked shirt and a golf
sweater that make him look like a former member of the
Temptations or the Four Tops, except richer and in better
health, sits next to Ehrlich at the director's table, offering a
stream of precise, constructive commentary on the way the
action onstage is being translated to the monitors. "The whole
song needs to be about the movement of the band with Justin,"
Wright offers. "Where he pulls the handkerchief, that whole
movement, we need to tighten that."
Ehrlich relays the comment into his headphones, and the star
runs through the beginning of the routine again. Wright peers
in at the monitor and shakes his head at the sloppy camera
work. "He's barely marking Justin. If he could give us a little
more definition of the moves," he suggests. He gazes up at the
stage. "Looks great, by the way/' he offers. JT takes out his
earpiece. "One mo' time/' he says, sounding just enough like
Marvin Gaye for the routine to fall into the market-friendly
space between homage and rip-off. Like all dancers, he is a self-
punishing control freak who gets off on the precision of his
routines. "What Johnny is saying is make it more cut-y,"
Ehrlich translates. "The singles on the singers and Justin. Then
do your accents on the occasional horns/'
Take three is when JT turns up the intensity of his performance
and delivers the vocal for real: "I show you how to do this,
huh?" And he does. But the brute fact of the music business is
that, in this day and age, not even a genius like Clive Davis has
any idea how many records JT will sell. The number could be
100,000 or 5 million. To be a music executive means linking
your dream to someone else's dream, and being open to the
entirely real possibility that the person whose dream you share
may be a 15 -year-old girl from Barbados or a guy who walks
into your office with pancake makeup and a cowbell around his
neck. Having faith in such people is a stretch; betting one's
financial future on what you imagine other people will hear in
their music is a further stretch, especially at the fag-end of the
music business where a multitalented ex-Mouseketeer like
Justin Timberlake is the closest thing that anyone can find to
"Teachers really are the unsung heroes of our creative
community," JT recites, sounding perfectly sincere as he reads
from his cue card. He puts his wool cap back on his head and
swigs from a water bottle as Ehrlich mounts the stage and
engages in animated back-and-forth about the "some actor"
joke. "I worked with him on the first 'N Sync show/' Ehrlich
offers, when he comes back to his table. "My mantra is and has
always been, they're not your friends."
Julie Frost, one of the top LA songwriters of the moment,
reminds me a little bit of the mid-'90s pop-folk star Jewel, if
Jewel were ten years older and weighed sixty pounds more,
and were therefore disqualified from any conceivable shot at
Clive Davis's Borax-ed version of music-biz stardom. Her path
to the business's current version of riches and fame is as typical
as any other: she grew up with hippie parents in Vermont,
went off to a fancy boarding school on scholarship, and then
returned to the poverty-stricken backwoods New England to
care for old people, before fleeing to Chicago, where she
became a hit at children's birthday parties, which in turn led to
a singer-songwriter showcase in New York and a light detour
through the hit-making factories in Atlanta, before she arrived
on the scene in Los Angeles, won some prizes, got rich, and
bought a house in Marina del Rey. Even as a child, she loved
music, listening to Carole King, James Taylor, Jimi Hendrix,
Cream, Prince, and the soundtrack to Grease on oversize
headphones plugged into her parents' stereo. She liked to dance
around the room, pretending she was the singer and admiring
her reflection in the big glass windows. "If I didn't get that time
I was like, crap/' she remembers, stretching out her legs in a
cold, windowless studio in West Hollywood, where she will be
writing songs this afternoon.
In Chicago, she worked as a cocktail waitress and then got a job
at the Old Town School of Folk Music, where she taught kids
how to play "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." Songs began to
come to her more frequently. "It was as if I had found this
radio station and it was just my music and it would just come in
anytime of the day or night," she remembers with a faraway
look, "and when it happened it's like it took precedence over
everything, like it was a fax from God." Along the way, she also
accumulated a growing number of handwritten rejection letters
from music-business executives. "Even from Clive," she
remembers. "My boy Clive. 'You're critically great, but it's not
commercial enough.' That's what I got a lot." When I ask her
what "not commercial enough" meant, she shrugs. "I wasn't
As a fixture in the Chicago scene, she soon realized that
working as a freelance artist was an unspeakably cruel life, by
Western standards. "You have to make every dollar with an
hour of work," she explains. "You never get a day off. You have
no benefits, and you have no rights." As her control over her
craft increased, she realized that there was an important
difference between faxes from God and hit songs. "I just was
writing real, true songs," she realized. "Which is different from
writing a hit song." At the time, she imagined that if you wrote
enough songs, one of them would probably be a hit.
Atlanta changed that. There was sex and marijuana smoke in
the air, and a science of writing hits, which was different from
sitting in some crappy half-underground club and drinking
coffee. She learned to ask herself, "What's the most amazing
thing that can happen between me and this track?" She
especially enjoyed the little ritual when the song was done and
everybody would come in and nod their heads. One day, she
imagined, that would be her song.
To make that day come faster, she sent an email out of the blue
to "Big Jon" Piatt, which if you know the songwriting business
is a pretty audacious move. Jon Piatt is the head of
Warner/Chappell Music and formerly the head of EMI. But
what really makes him important are the artists he's signed, a
list that includes Kanye West, Beyonce, and Jay-Z, all of whom
love Big Jon and trust him to bring them hits; the "Big" in his
name comes from the fact that he is at least six-and-a-half feet
tall and built like a linebacker, with a shaved head and rings on
all his fingers, and the jocular good manners of a man who is
too physically imposing to be trifled with by anyone, big or
small. The other reason artists trust Big Jon Piatt is that he is,
by all accounts, a person who loves music, and who makes sure
that his artists and songwriters get paid.
There is no shortage of good stories about Big Jon, one of
which is about the email that Julie Frost sent him at 2:30 one
morning, with no introduction whatsoever, with two songs
attached— one called "Beautiful Day" and the other called
"Satellite." Big Jon wrote her back and said he loved "Beautiful
Day/' It became his happy song, which he blasted from his
floor-to-ceiling speakers while he sat at his desk working three
phones at a time and waving his arms. He flew Frost out to LA
and signed her to a music-publishing deal with EMI, which she
has since repaid by winning the Eurovision song contest, an
AS CAP award, and a Golden Globe, and by writing hits for
Beyonce— "it's just been like a fairy tale ever since/' she says.
It's a good life, living next to the ocean with her people while
accumulating millions in songwriting royalties.
Her writing session today is at Mike Caren's shop in West
Hollywood, which consists of six new and decently appointed
studios off a main hallway with black-and-white pictures of
Atlantic recording artists hung on the walls, to give it some of
that hallowed-by-history feel. Mike Caren is an up-and-coming
music exec who has been in the business since he was a
teenager at Beverly Hills High School. In a gray T-shirt and
stonewashed blue pants and sneakers, he could be Justin
Timberlake's fantasy-football partner. If 99-cent downloads are
where the music business is still at, even the fractions of a
penny per play that Spotify pays out might still add up to real
money, Caren believes. In the old days, he explains, a day in a
studio with an engineer cost a minimum of $800— a cost that
was usually borne, directly or indirectly, by the artist. If you
imagine that a great songwriter might write 250 days a year and
produce four or five hits, then the odds for each $800 spin of
the roulette wheel were one in fifty. Fire the kitchen staff, put
in Pro Tools, and pay an engineer by the hour, and you could
use the same casino chip to pay for ten days of recording. That
was Caren's first discovery.
His second discovery was that he could encourage the writing
of hits by urging songwriters to follow his nine rules of hit
songwriting. While Caren's rules are not comprehensive or
exclusive, it is easy to measure their value by a glance at the
dozens of gold and platinum records hanging in his office. He is
happy to run down his rules for me. "First, it starts with an
expression of 'Hey/ 'Oops/ 'Excuse me/" he begins. "Second is
a personal statement: Tm a hustler, baby/ 'I wanna love you/ 'I
need you tonight/ Third is telling you what to do: 'Put your
hands up/ 'Give me all your love/ 'Jump/ Fourth is asking a
question: 'Will you love me tomorrow/ 'Where have you been
all my life/ 'Will the real Slim Shady please stand up/"
He takes a deep breath, and rattles off another four rules. "Five
is logic/' he says, "which could be counting, or could be
spelling or phonetics: '1-2-3-4, let the bodies hit the floor/ or
'Ca-li-fornia is comp-li-cated/ those kind of things. Six would
be catchphrases that roll off the tip of your tongue because you
know them: 'Never say never/ 'Rain on my parade/ Seven
would be what we call stutter, like, 'D-d-don't stop the beat/ but
it could also be repetition: 'Will the real Slim Shady please
stand up, please stand up, please stand up/ Eight is going back
to logic again, like hot or cold, heaven or hell, head to toe, all
those kind of things."
The ninth rule of hit songwriting is silence. Why? Because
most people who are listening to music are actually doing
something else, he explains. They are driving a car, or working
out, or dancing, or flirting. Silence gives you time to catch up
with the lyrics if you are drunk or stoned. If you are singing
along, silence gives you time to breathe. "Michael Jackson, his
quote was 'Silence is the greatest thing an entertainer has/"
Caren continues. '"I got a feeling/ space-space-space, 'Do you
believe in life after love/ space-space-space-space-space."
Silence. Another rule of hit songwriting is simplicity, he adds,
which is learning to say the most with the fewest words. He
ticks off his rules on his fingers: expression, questions,
commands, repetitions, logic, personal statements, cliches, and
space. That makes eight rules. He shrugs.
His favorite example of a song that uses the most rules in the
fewest words is a hit by the rapper Ludacris, "What's Your
Fantasy," which starts off with the lyric "I wanna li-li-li-lick you
from your head to your toes." Caren loves that song. "In the
first line: a personal statement, 'I want to/ a stutter, repetition,
Ti-lick you/ logic, 'from your head to your toes, move from the
bed down to the down to the, to the floor/" he explains. "'I
gotta know'— another personal statement— and asks a question,
'What's your fantasy?' So he's got six of them, in the first two
lines of the song."
We stroll down the halls, where the writers are working in
rooms. In the studio next door, a young-looking blond white
guy, who is at least six inches too tall to be in a boy band, and
his goofy Australian writing partner are working on a song for
Flo Rida, a rapper from the South whose posterior-oriented hits
routinely sell three or four million copies. "I've been to a
million places/' the Aussie offers:
"I'm not too good with faces
"But I'll never forget that ass. "
Caren winces. "You have another six weeks to come up with a
Julie Frost is writing during the evening session with Andrew
Frampton, a tall, fit, nerdily handsome Brit in black-rimmed
glasses and a black T-shirt who cofounded Photogenic Records
and writes hits on the side. He looks too gawky to be a front
man in a band; it is easier to imagine him checking the damage
waivers at the rental counter on the contract for someone else's
touring van. He grew up loving music and writing songs, and
spent five years trying to break into the UK music scene with
his first band, which he formed at the age of 13 with his
brother and a friend, and which after five years of hustling
achieved the holy grail: a £100,000 advance. The band then
flopped, leaving Frampton with his old love for writing songs
and a new appreciation of the career-determining value of hits.
He left London for LA, where he came to love the weather, and
the challenge of walking into a windowless room at noon,
introducing himself to someone he had never met before, and
Songwriters tend to be optimists, in part because so few songs
they write are ever recorded, and so few recorded songs
become hits. The fact that most money in songwriting these
days comes from radio airplay greatly influences the kinds of
songs writers have any interest in writing. A number-one Top
40 hit in America is probably worth $1.5 to $2 million in
airplay, while a song on a platinum album— meaning an album
that sells a million copies, which is a rarity these days— is
worth only about $90,000. Web-based streaming services like
Spotify and Pandora pay fractions of a penny per play, making
them the equivalent of digital sweatshops where the world's
greatest singers, songwriters, and musicians work for less than
the daily wage of garment workers in Bangladesh. Max Martin
and Dr. Luke, the most successful songwriters in the world
right now, make $20 million a year from airplay. Below them is
an echelon of a few dozen songwriters who make between $1.5
and $6 million a year, most of which also comes from airplay.
Songwriters like Julie Frost or Andrew Frampton might make a
bit less than that by creating fifty to sixty copyrights a year,
with past copyrights generating maybe half their income.
Today, Julie and Andrew are joined by two kids from Paris who
write synth pop. One is wearing a black V-neck sweater, and
the younger one is wearing a LOLcats T-shirt. The hope in the
room is that the few bars of digitally inflected chord
progression they have brought with them on a MacBook Air is
the un-popped kernel of an original pop song. Creatively, their
music is something rather than nothing. It is a place to start,
which may be more or less random, but can pick up new
inflections and textures and ideas as the evening rolls on. But
first everyone has to deal with the monster in the room. There
is no sense in being here without at least trying to imagine the
moody Bastille-tinted synth riffs as the backbone of a Flo Rida
summer hit that might generate millions in airplay.
"Have you heard the new Flo Rida stuff?" Julie asks. "It's a
whole new vibe."
"I can't believe
"White girl got some ass. "
"That's introspective Flo/' she explains. Then she looks glum. "I
don't want to do another ass song," she laments. Then she
brightens. "All the way to ass town!" she suggests. Andrew
"I want money
"Going all the way to ass town. "
Julie reaches into a brown bag and withdraws a clear plastic tub
of chopped salad. "I do 500 calories Monday and Wednesday"
she offers. She and Andrew trade tips on staying fit in writer's
rooms while the Frenchies fiddle with their MacBook. "A good
chord progression, 1, 2, 5," the younger-looking one says. Then
he presses a button, and plays the chord progression backward.
Andrew Frampton looks over at the screen.
"Cool," he says. "What program is that?"
"ACID Pro/' one of them answers, "from Sony/'
Julie stands up and raises her hands above her hand. "Ass! Ass!
Ass! Ass!" she chants. She surveys the room again, and then
hammers a final nail in the coffin, just to be sure. "Let's not try
to write for Flo," she says. "Let's write a big song." The
engineer loops the track from Paris, and Julie steps up to the
mic and starts off with some wordless scat.
"Mmmmmmmm dah dah dah uh. "
"That's the payoff or chant line," she explains. She pauses, and
tries to make the nonsense syllables resolve into recognizable
words and phrases.
"When you hold me all day and night
"I'm going to get it right "
She pauses again, searching for new emotion in the syllables,
plucking sense from the ether of her subconscious.
"And when you hold me
"I feel alive. "
She looks pleased. "That's an idea!" she says.
"And when you hold me
"I feel a lie. "
She shakes her head.
"And when you hold me
"I come alive.
"I want you to— hold me!"
The shape of a pop song is beginning to emerge, but she has
left herself with nowhere to go. "It needs something dumber in
the middle." She sighs.
Andrew nods, from his place on the couch. "The hook could be
any kind of big pop hook/' he offers. "It feels like the second
part has got to pick up, or else we're going to get caught in this
linear thing." He improvises a chorus, and then Julie sings,
"Throw that halo!
"Down on the floor. "
Andrew looks pleased. "If you throw your halo away, it's like
someone could catch it," he explains. "Throwing it on the floor,
that's a bit more rebellious."
Julie's songcraft is less grounded in analysis. "I like halos, in
general," she says. "It sings really good. Or we could just say,
'Hey Fuckhead, please listen to this hook.'"
Andrew steps up to the mic and expands the chorus. "Throw
your halo/ down on the floor / because you ain't gonna need it no
more. " Then he steps back again, looking for a clever bit of
logic. "This is a dance song. Set your devil free. Don't have any
inhibitions/' he explains. "What if everything they are going to
do on the floor is like what you would do to a drink? Pop the
"We're gonna pop the top
"And drink up every drop
"'Cause when the par-ty starts
"We're never gonna stop. "
Jimmy the engineer doubles and triples up Julie and Andrew's
turns at the mic until they sound like plausible lead vocals on a
hit record, rather than two songwriters fooling around in the
studio. As Jimmy works, Andrew stands over his shoulders and
rearranges the bits of digital matter into ever more compelling
poppy curves and hooks. "Now punch in all four of those
tracks," he instructs. Following his directions, the engineer
stacks bars of purple, blue, and sea foam-green digital stuff
above a black EKG-like readout of the melody.
The next few hours are spent fooling with Mike Caren's rule
book to find couplets that stick. Julie nods when I suggest that
this part of the job is like doing a crossword puzzle. "But it's
like a really hard crossword puzzle," she adds. "Like the Sunday
New York Times crossword puzzle. In French."
A half hour later, a studio executive named Ben comes in,
wearing tan suede Gucci loafers and jeans. He loves the song. "I
think it's a 100 percent home run for Ke$ha," he offers. "For
Maroon 5, the girl is always torturing Adam. There's got to be
something dark in it. But maybe Ke$ha can do the hook . . ."
In England, someone says, there is a guy named "Eg" White,
who is maybe the last true, great producer, a guy who hears his
own music his own way, in his own head. He did the song
"Chasing Pavements" for Adele. "The great thing about Eg, he's
a very posh English guy, and you go to his place, he's got all
vintage gear, a guitar with broken strings, a tambourine with
one bell on it," Andrew says, his voice a bit wistful and
admiring of a fantasy inherent in his mode of production, and
therefore, according to the cruel logic of the dialectic, merely
fuel for a synthesis as yet unseen. "Even the top guys don't
press him. He never works past six, because his wife won't let
him. He's a seriously talented guy."
Usher is standing onstage in the Beverly Hilton ballroom in a
white T-shirt with a heavy gold chain around his neck. It's just
past noon, and the star is playful and at ease, rehearsing his
lines for Clive Davis's party while balancing a three-quarters-
full takeout cup of coffee in his right hand.
"All right!" he exclaims, the reflection of the house lights
bouncing off his gold chain, competing with the dazzling
whiteness of his teeth. Then, for no particular reason, aside
from the performer's high spirits, he breaks into "La Bamba,"
exploring the more exuberant textures of his silky, incredible
voice while looking out over the stacks of chairs and scratched-
up folding tables that will soon cover the ballroom floor. "Y
arriba y arriba," he sings, and then he stops, and smiles at the
guitarist, who is seated to his left. "That's the only part I know,"
he says apologetically.
Usher glides through his lines without breaking a sweat, or
giving off any of the neurotic intensity of a Justin Timberlake.
He is Usher, a legitimate heir to a deep American musical
culture, who will be performing for five hundred of his peers
and not for a television audience of tens of millions of viewers,
most of whom couldn't care less about music, or his music. He
pirouettes onstage while balancing his coffee with a casual ease
that suggests it is attached to his hand; if you could see inside
the paper cup as Usher was dancing, the surface of the coffee
would probably be flat. "I realized that I wanted to be a star,
cha-cha," he vamps, hitting the high emotional notes in his
lines without wasting effort on filler. He turns to the place
where the evening's honoree, the music executive L. A. Reid,
will be standing. "L. A., thank you for fighting me on that," he
says, with palpable sincerity.
"Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Atlanta, I was singing for a lot of
people," he says, or, rather, sings. Usher is so inherently
musical that even when he delivers tribute lines on an empty
stage with his morning cup of coffee in hand, it sounds like a
song. He may not be a first-generation genius like Sam Cooke,
or a second-generation genius like Marvin Gaye, or even a
third-generation genius like Michael Jackson. But it is easy to
imagine some version of the young Usher opening for Sam
Cooke at a Georgia nightclub back in the day. He rewards the
four people sitting at tables in the empty ballroom with two
minutes worth of "We Belong Together/' and then he calls it a
Watching rehearsals for Davis's party beats watching rehearsals
for the Grammys, because the room is so much smaller, and the
music is so much better, and also because I get to sit next to
Michael Ahern, a white-haired, blue-eyed Irish theater-director-
type from New York who has been in charge of sound and
staging for Davis's parties for more than thirty years. Ahern
wears a jaunty red scarf tied around his neck and a tweed jacket
over a navy sweatshirt to ward off the chill of the hotel-
ballroom air conditioning; his wire-rimmed glasses, pushed
down on the bridge of his nose, give him the look of an
avuncular policeman. When he sees something he doesn't like,
he looks over the top of his glasses, and his blue eyes fade to
the color of icicles.
"You promise that you won't fuck me up?" he asks me after I
make my way past security to the ballroom, where the
Lumineers are dealing with a broken cello. The Lumineers' "Ho
Hey" was the third-most-shared song in Brooklyn on Spotify,
the Grammys publicist informed me. The Lumineers' music is
the musical equivalent of something you spread on a cracker,
Ahern agrees. Nevertheless, this gig is dear.
Someone stops by the table with a question about lighting, who
Ahern deals with quickly and then starts to tease. "I love you
too, Bill/' Ahern calls out in a calm, even-tempered voice. "Tell
your story walking." Dry-ice smoke billows around a screen lit
in electric blues and purples. As rehearsal time lengthens, the
power guy stops by to talk about the outage at last year's Super
Bowl, which was held in New Orleans— a city notorious among
show-biz folk for its drunken stagehands. "I find it engaging
and charming, and it's the kind of thing that you want to learn
about in anthropology class, but it's not the kind of thing you
want in a fucking production," Ahern reasonably offers.
After making sure that the Whitney Houston tribute video has
been received, he turns his attention to the dry ice. "Benny
Collins loves things like that," he says, loud enough for the
hulking man nearby to overhear. "Benny, do you want to play
with dry ice?" On cue, Benny wanders over. "You were serious
about the dry ice?" he asks. Ahern gives a paternal nod and
points with his thumb in the direction of the smoke billowing
from behind the screen, stage right, which features none other
than Clive Davis himself with his trademark three-piece suit,
bald head and glasses, talking on an endless loop, his face
blown up to maybe fifty times its actual size. The fact that the
sound has been turned off adds a paranoid tinge to the
atmosphere of the room; it's a tribute of sorts to the
Ozymandias of the music business, the master of a once-
glorious star-fucking universe that has been sucked into the
black hole of YouTube.
On second thought, maybe it's the rock stars who got tired.
Next up on stage is Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith's lanky guitarist—
an old face from the East Village in the '80s, back when there
was a scene, meaning rents that musicians and other artists
could afford. Kaye is followed by a procession of burly men,
each carrying an armful of pink roses: centerpieces for the
three great tiers of banquet tables at which Davis's guests will
be seated. Following behind the parade of roses is Patti Smith,
legendary artist, autobiographer, poet, rock star. "One-two-two,
bing-bing-check," she says, in her dry way, into the mic.
Smith was the goddess of the Lower East Side when it was
overrun by junkies. Onstage with her is a band of graying
hipsters who have become their own ghosts. She looks out into
the empty sea of wooden tables in search of something.
"Where is Clive sitting?" she asks, squinting, but Davis is not in
the house, or even on the screen, which is now running plugs
for Harman, Hilton, MasterCard, and Hyundai, the corporate
sponsors of the Grammy Salute to Industry Icons, which is the
official name of tonight's event. Michael Ahern compares the
floor plan with the arrangements in front of him. "Clive is still
setting up seventy tables," he explains.
"Can we have some of the lights down a little? They're so
bright," she asks. If Usher is smooth, Smith is abrasive; she
looks like a female Keith Richards, without the smack. The
band behind her launches into a mid-period Sonic Youth-
inspired East Village drone while Smith explains that the
people have the power— "the power to redeem the work of
fools," she sings. It's an upbeat sentiment. "They're used to
dealing with heavy bass," she says, gesturing at the musicians.
"It's making me nauseous. It sounds good, though/' She shades
her brow, and looks out at the room, where about a dozen
stagehands and their families have gathered to breathe in some
rock and roll.
"Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine," she snarls.
"Feedback on my vocal." Then she tries again. When that one is
over, she launches into her sandpaper-voiced version of
"Gloria." G-L-O-R-I-A. It's a bad scene from five decades ago,
filtered through the reverb of a three-decades-ago bad scene.
But to say that scenes are pure until infected by commerce is to
get something badly wrong about the music business, namely
that it was a business, in which even the greats wrote songs for
money; money is how Americans show appreciation for art, or
say they are sorry, or otherwise show that their sentiments
have meaning and are truly felt. In addition to writing all the
music and lyrics for Nirvana, Kurt Cobain designed the band's
T-shirts and album covers and created shot-by-shot scripts for
the band's videos on MTV, as well as edited the bios and other
publicity materials that helped shape the band's narrative in the
rock press. It was all part of his art, or inseparable from his art;
it's what he got paid for. "Rock and roll is a commercial art
form, it's not just about the music, it's about what you look like,
it's about how you connect with an audience, it's about the
photos that appear in the British trades." Nirvana's longtime
manager, Danny Goldberg, told me this when I met with him
in New York, before I left for the Grammys. Even when Cobain
was nodding off on rock-star doses of heroin in the MTV
editing suite, Goldberg remembers, he could still identify
exactly where the camera should come in and when to cut
away. "He had a dark side, but he was so nice to me, you know,
it was so out of proportion to anything that I did for him," he
remembered. "He was tremendously intellectually curious,
incredibly creative, and had a great sense of humor; he was like
a leprechaun or an elf. You'd go to wherever he was living, and
he lived in a lot of places, and there'd be like reams of drawings
and paintings and poems. He was also a great fan of other
artists. He'd always be saying, 'You've got to hear Captain
America, you've got to hear the Jesus Lizard,' or whatever those
It's a sin to visit Southern California and not drive. Freed from
the darkness of the ballroom, I get my car from the valet and
head for the Pacific Coast Highway, where the sun is burning
through the haze, allowing me to see the curve of the coastline
on the way to Malibu. The traffic is so bad here now, my
friends tell me, that no one commutes to work anymore. What
used to take half an hour now takes an hour, and as a result
everyone works at home, the musicians in their backyard
studios, the producers on iPads, and the writers on MacBook
Airs, thanks be to Steve Jobs. Paul Jackson Jr., who played
guitar on so many of Michael Jackson's hits, was one of the
pioneers of the Malibu recording dream of having a studio on
your own property, in response to which the Studio Alliance of
Southern California formed in order to prevent musicians from
recording in their own homes. Now everyone has Pro Tools.
Rick Rubin lives in Malibu, where he takes surfing lessons from
Laird Hamilton, before Kanye shows up at his house to record.
When my coastal drive is done, I head over to the Sony lot, and
find my way to a large, hangar-like soundstage where Irving
Azoff, the legendarily diminutive rock manager, is standing
alone. On the stage in front of him, like a pop-culture mirage,
are the Eagles, delivering a note-perfect version of "Hotel
California." Azoff, not so affectionately known among his peers
as the "Poison Dwarf/' is a delightful person who
simultaneously managed the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and Steely
Dan when those bands were all at the height of their fame,
earning himself a place in pop-music history as the gardener
who encouraged the blossoming of the Southern California
Clive Davis and Irving Azoff are titanic opposing forces in the
music biz, each representing a decades-long line of
development that has been rendered obsolete by the rigors of
the digital age. Davis is a flossy Roman emperor, all artifice and
fiat, who secretly listens to '50s musicals at home, and this year
will be bringing a revival of My Fair Lady to Broadway. Azoff is
on the side of artists and songwriting craft; he hates digital
everything. Both men are filthy rich. And they both know it's
over. Azoff recently left his job as head of Live Nation, which
for a time had made him the most powerful man in the music
business, at least on paper. "I was king of shit," Azoff growls,
when I ask him what it felt like to run what's left of the world
he grew up in. The music business has collapsed, he says, in
part because of the ever-widening split between songwriters
and musicians, who have become less and less interested in
learning to play their instruments, at the same time that
audiences are less and less inclined to pay for music, while the
federal government is less and less inclined to enforce legal
protections for intellectual property.
"What the internet has really done is it's taught generations of
people now to believe if it comes on that machine it should be
free," Azofif says in disgust. He tells me that he once checked
the iTunes receipts for the Eagles, who are one of the top ten
best-selling American recording artists in history. What he
found was that in ten years on iTunes, the band had made
about $700,000 from their share of however many millions of
99-cent downloads— which equaled roughly the amount the
band would make in under one hour of a single arena show.
Azofif 's response was to threaten to pull the Eagles' music off
iTunes, earning him an angry phone call from Steve Jobs. "I
said, 'Steve, for eight or nine or seven, whatever number of
years it was, you paid us what we made for playing forty-two
minutes in Kansas City. We really don't need your $700,000.
We'll just book another show."
Still, Azofif is nearly unique in America's cratering creative fields
for his belief that artists deserve to be rewarded for the hours,
days, months, and years of hard, lonely work that goes into
honing a craft at which very few people ever succeed at making
a living. When I ask him about Clive Davis, he shrugs. "Look,
there's two sides to everything Clive says/' he explains.
"There's what was going on in his mind, and what really
happened. God bless him, he's done some great things, but
none of us are always right. In this business, if you're hitting
.250 you're leading the league. It wasn't Clive's genius to
recognize big acts in the Sixties, because in those days anybody
that you signed was gonna happen. You went to Monterey Pop
Festival, they each signed six acts, they each broke four of the
six. You could just go there, take some drugs, and go, 'You're
great, you're great.' You could just sign anybody who was
playing because, in those days, 90 percent of the people who
got on the bill were gonna happen. And you know, Clive never
The night before the Grammys, I enter the Hilton ballroom,
past three tiers of security and a long row of hired servants in
tuxedos bearing canapes and mixed drinks, to find myself in a
room that's vibrating with energy— a room filled with people
who are waiting to see rock stars. There is nothing that rock
stars respect more than institutions; Clive Davis is an
institution. Being a rock star means taking your job seriously
enough to keep the joke alive, so that everyone gets paid and
laid. They're rock stars!
Dave Grohl, who was the drummer in Nirvana before
becoming a bona fide rock star in his own right, is the
industry's favorite example of a model citizen— a responsible,
bright, capable performer who writes hits. He is dressed for the
evening in a black tuxedo jacket, which makes him look like a
Romanian count, and he tells me some funny stories about
Alice Cooper, who is standing in the middle of the room and
loves golf. To his left is Diane Warren, who has written bushels
of hits, from "A Smile Like Yours" (Natalie Cole) and "Blue Eyes
Blue" (Eric Clapton) all the way down the alphabet to "You'll
Never Stand Alone" (Whitney Houston). Next to her is a buzz-
cut man who is giving off a really weird vibe that neither of us
can identify. His jaw is clenched, and on the lapel of his white
dinner jacket is a glittering starburst-like decoration so
elaborate that it has to be fake.
Cocktail hour ends, and the guests make their way to the
ballroom, where the tables are now covered with white
tablecloths, with centerpieces of pink roses. The man in the
white dinner jacket is standing three feet in front of me,
working his jaw beneath his buzz cut like an aging Marine
colonel played by Robert Duvall. The decoration on his lapel is
more ridiculous than Alice Cooper's hair or any rock-star outfit.
It's clear that the moment is too good to pass up. "Forgive my
ignorance," I ask politely, "but what country is that medal
from?" His eyes focus on me for a moment, offering a rare
combination of pity and rage. "It's the Presidential Medal of
Freedom," he snaps, and then he looks away, hoping to catch a
glimpse of Sting or whatever it is that he's come here for. It
seems possible that he ran a corporation of some kind,
like Procter & Gamble, and met Clive Davis at a rich man's club
or retreat. "Why?" I wonder. It seems like a fair question.
"Because I went to the moon/' he answers.
I gape, and then I recover enough to ask him, "Which one are
you?" I am sure that he is not Neil Armstrong, because
Armstrong is dead. He gives me the look I would probably give
people if I went to the moon and then came back, and then
spent the rest of my life answering dumb questions from
people who can't begin to understand what it would be like to
go to the moon.
"Buzz Aldrin," he answers. Now the entire scene made sense.
When Buzz Aldrin came back to Earth, he spent years painting
pictures of the moon, and of what Earth looks like from the
moon. He also became an advocate for unorthodox drugs and
reportedly developed a drinking problem. "Shit," I say. "What
are you doing here?"
"Thinking about the future!" he answers, a bit too quick.
Something in the way I asked that question obviously spooked
him. Being a bit jumpy seems like a reasonable lifelong
consequence of being blasted off the earth into space, where
for all you or anyone else knew you might have spent the rest
of your brief existence. What's worse is to survive, and to carry
the burden of something unspeakable. Astronauts and rock
stars belong together, because they are both screens for the
projections of masses of people who want their own
experiences to mean something they can feel but can't name. It
is no accident that Michael Jackson's denning move was called
the moonwalk. He was also an astronaut.
"You touched the moon/' I exclaim. While Buzz Aldrin is
looking around for proof of intelligent life on Earth, I am trying
to knit together the frayed ends of a story: the music business
was the product of a dream of connection to something larger
than ourselves, which was taken over first by large
corporations, then by television, then by the internet, and then
it died. The high-end psychological baggage that rock stars
carry is a comforting and familiar-enough metaphor through
which I understand the dynamics of my much less glamorous
life, which died for the same reason that the music business
died, and the dream of living on the moon or Mars died,
namely, because enough people have bought the lie that being a
poster on someone else's wall is the equivalent of actually
knowing someone, or going somewhere, or creating art.
"Would you sign my invitation to Mr. Davis's party, please?" I
ask him. When the second man to walk on the moon touches
his pen to a piece of paper that represents the apogee of
achievement in the music business, the void will open.
"I don't do that," Aldrin harrumphs. For a moment, I wonder
what he means by "that"? Sign autographs? Use a pen? The
clear instability in Aldrin's reality frame makes it impossible for
me to be sure. Then he is gone.
"It is not an understatement to say that our host is a true
genius/' says Neil Portnow, the head of the Academy,
welcoming Davis to the mic. "Many, many nights we heard the
phenomenal Whitney Houston," intones Davis, in his capacity
as master of ceremonies, which he will perform with unctuous
pride for the next four hours or longer. "Whether you're an
executive, a writer, a producer," he offers, "everyone in this
room loves music," which seems fair enough. "I'm not sure
you're aware of who is among us," he says, moving from his
funeral director's voice to the voice of a waiter presenting the
dessert cart at Le Cirque.
"She's one of the most influential songwriters of our time, a
winner of seven Grammys," he says. "She attends very few
parties." The answer is Joni Mitchell, whose presence here
certifies that Clive Davis is also a legend, whose guests are also
legends, who are ordered according to the number of albums
sold and Grammys won, and are joined by legends from other
fields of popular endeavor. The multiplatinum artist is Sting.
The quarterback who led his team to the Super Bowl is Colin
Kaepernick. There is something delightfully Dada about Davis's
"You are going to cancel any ephemeral absentminded
appointment you have ever made," the host instructs. "The
culture of electronic dance music has to be represented ..." Odd
head motion. "We all must adapt ..." Seeming aphasia, leading
to a moment of sharp emotional clarity: "I need your respect
and attention." He pays tribute to Sean "Diddy" Combs, as he
does every year, to certify that he is down. "I was knocked out
by his vision and articulateness," he explains. "And then he
played me a song that sounded like a smash/'
Now it's time for the music. "An all-time great ... I discovered
this artist ... she's a living landmark ... she's a singer-songwriter
... she's a photographer," he lists proudly, as though ticking off
the features on his brand-new car. "It is with emotion ... it is
with pride ... it is with pure love . . ." It is Patti Smith, with
Lenny Kaye standing next to her in a tux. "Jesus died for
somebody's sins," she sings, "but not mine." She still has a
Michigan auto-body-factory yawp in her voice, and she looks
even scarier onstage now that she is no longer young. In an
oversize men's white shirt and a loose black tie, she looks like
the devil's own bag lady.
It is important to remember that Davis was young once, too.
His office on the top floor of the Sony Building is furnished
with a weird combination of robber-baron-era polished wood
and Louis XIV decadence, which might impress musicians,
most of whom grew up poor, like Clive, whose own childhood
was as dysfunctional and fucked up as that of any ghetto
rapper: his father had an affair with his aunt before both his
parents died in accidents, leaving him in the care of the aunt
whom his father was having the affair with. Now he helps
multiplatinum recording artists fulfill their dreams. Alicia Keys
had dreamed of performing with Aretha Franklin, and he made
it happen. He brought Puffy to Capri. And once a year, the
crazy beautiful Clive-o-centric world inside his 82-year-old
skull matches up exactly with the world inside the ballroom of
the Beverly Hilton. "Brandy, sit down," Davis commands. "I've
met a lady who was married to a Beatle. That's always special,"
he muses, by way of introducing Olivia Harrison, George's
The Lumineers play a song, and the lead singer doesn't approve
of the response. After all, the band had the third-most-popular
song on Spotify in Brooklyn this summer. "Everybody stand
up," he commands. "We'd like to feel a little more energy in the
room." On the one hand, his request is a measure of the band's
own inadequacy. But the room stands, in part because the
request obeyed two of the nine rules of hit songwriting— a
command, followed by a personal statement.
"Thank you for listening, thank you for giving us a chance," the
other boy Lumineer says earnestly. They are stars, for daring to
ask for what they wanted at Clive Davis's party. Their music is
something that they will have to work on.
L. A. Reid is introduced by his partner, the songwriter Kenneth
"Babyface" Edmonds. Babyface is a gas. He is way looser and
funnier than Clive Davis, or anyone else here. "He was in this
band called the Deele. I was in this band called Manchild," he
deadpans. "There was a thing called 'breed' back then/'
Babyface explains. "It was an attitude/' He pauses, letting the
silence do its work. "L. A. said I wasn't breed enough. So I
went away and worked on my breed. I got my hair together. I
got my lips together/' His delivery is all about sideways
variations on the deadpan, which he has mastered at the
highest comedic levels. Everyone laughs at the idea of a 21-
year-old L. A. Reid in purple spandex pants.
Usher walks onstage, and launches into "U Got It Bad." He
moves the mic when he sings, varying the distance and angle to
better modulate his voice. L. A. Reid is floored. "It was so
intimate," he says, after Usher is done. "I just loved it."
After dessert, I notice Joni Mitchell standing nearby. I tell her
that every woman I ever loved owned at least one copy of Blue.
Now my 4-year-old daughter Susannah draws while listening to
"Big Yellow Taxi." Impulsively, she hugs me, and gives me a
kiss on the cheek before answering, "She had to start
somewhere." She tells me that she and Neil Young both grew
up in the same lonesome part of Canada, and were affected by
the same childhood epidemic, at the same age, in the same year.
Half the people in the room leave before the night is over,
which means that it is possible to get a better table, close to the
stage, as Clive continues on with his routine. Wiz Khalifa is
here, as are Alicia Keys and her husband, Swizz Beatz. The
Midnight Cowboy himself, Jon Voight, is here. The final duet
features Jennifer Hudson and Gladys Knight.
As the lights come up, I have no idea what to say. Then I realize
I should thank Clive Davis for having me as a guest at his party.
So I go up to the stage, where he is standing with Michael
Ahern. "That was a wonderful party," I tell him, sincerely.
"Thank you for having me/' He takes my hand and gives it a
"You're welcome/' he says, sadly.
David Samuels is the literary editor at Tablet, a contributing editor
at Harper's and a longtime contributor to The Atlantic and The
New Yorker. He appeared on the Longform Podcast in October